Ancestor Veneration

Africans have long believed that the ritualized propitiation and invocation of dead kin could influence the fate of the living. This is not exclusively an African practice, but it has probably been brought to its most complex and elaborate levels by Africans. The Chinese, Melanesians, and Japanese also have constructed system of ancestral veneration. In Africa, the relationship between the living and the dead is a manifestation of the continuity of community in a specific familial way. When a society passes concepts, art forms, and myths from generation to generation, those ideas are enshrined in the society's memory as worthy of emulation.
Everything must be approached through the ancestors. This means that in classical African religion (CAR) there is always ancestral priority, presence, and power. The ancestral spirits are the most intimate divinities and must be consulted on important occasions. Africans regard the ancestors as the keepers of morality. One of the ways descendants of the ancestors maintain a balanced society is by avoiding the activities that were considered immoral by the ancestors. Sudden deaths are often thought to be attributed to punishments inflicted by ancestors. Therefore, the living must do everything they can to avoid crossing the moral path laid down by the departed ancestors. The social fabric of African communities is woven together by ancestor reverence. It is the source of many domestic and institutional relationships. It is not a reflection of any supernatural world, but rather, a part of the world in which Africans who practice CAR live. Thus the manner of reverence of African people is relatively similar, making it possible to speak of the commonalities of ancestor reverence among Africans.

The Line of Descent

The descent line is the basic structural component for all groups that practice ancestor reverence. Africans know who to revere by knowing to whom they belong. Constant ritualizing reverence of the First Ancestors helps to reinforce the appreciation for a particular descent group. Sometimes the main descent group can be augmented by other ethnic or clan groups. For instance, the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe were originally a royal clan of the Zulu of South Africa, but during their migration and conquest northward out of South Africa they acquired new clans and ethnic groups who now appropriate some of the same ancestors.
For many African people, the descent is through the mother, that is, matrilineal. Thus the ancestor to be revered would come from the mother's side of the family. The father would be a part of this family line by virtue of his marriage to the direct descendant. In some cases, the father would also revere the ancestors of his father. The idea is that the ancestor revered must be within the family structure. If the structure is patrilineal, then the ancestors are from the father's side and the mother may participate in the reverence as a member of the family.

A Religion of the Ancestors

CAR is preeminently a religion of the ancestors. Thus the Swazi king appeals to the ancestors on behalf of the nation, showing himself to be the chief priest. This pattern of royal intercession is followed by many other African groups, though it is not universal. What is common and extensively practiced is sacrifice. For the Swazi this means that each year an animal must be dedicated to a specific royal ancestor and may only be eaten by the direct descendants of that ancestor.
While it is true that ancestors are revered, it is also true that not all ancestors are revered in the same way. A congregation, that is, a kinship group, so to speak, does not provide ritual service or respect to every ancestor in all situations of worship. The ancestors who are accorded respect in a given situation are primarily those who are exclusive to the worshipping group. This helps Africans to distinguish between collateral groups, perhaps in the same ethnic group. On the other hand, some ancestors are more than family, they are national, that is, all families in the ethnic group are derived from them.
The complexity of the practice of ancestor reverence varies among ethnic groups. However, in most groups the connections between the religion and property, marriage, birth, death, and titles to membership and leadership of the group are clearly tied to geneonymy, the commemoration of the ancestors by name. Everyone who calls the name of the ancestors must use the accepted sequence, because that is the way the group establishes itself as a congregation. Geneonymy is also important for its establishment of a focus on the ancestors. Every member of the congregation knows exactly to whom he or she belongs. There is no confusion about this in the ethnic group, because the calling of the names of the ancestors makes clear the lineage of groups and individuals.
CAR ancestor reverence or worship should not be confused with cults of the dead. In and of itself, death has no divine qualities in CAR. African people worship something far more significant than merely the dead. Practitioners of CAR believe that in actual fact those who have lived among us affect our lives after death. The deification of the ancestral spirit is essential to the religion, and death must occur for the process of deification to take place. Ancestor reverence, therefore, is not the same as practices dealing with ghosts and spirits and hobgoblins. The ancient Greeks believed in such ghost and shade cults but did not have ancestor reverence.
There is a widespread practice of ancestor reverence on the continent of Africa; therefore the practices are varied. The Ga of Ghana and the Nuer of the Sudan, two of the several groups without an elaborate system of ancestor reverence, still have a strong belief in the veneration of ancestors on special occasions. The Ga have ritualized libations in the name of the honored dead during naming ceremonies, marriages, and the Homowo Festival. Their practice, and that of the Nuer, may be somewhat like the practices of the Jews and Catholics, both of whom name ancestors on special occasions. The Jews name ancestors on the New Year and Day of Atonement, and the Catholics have masses in the names of the ancestor saints. The Ibo of Nigeria believe that the ancestors profoundly influence all actions in society. Rather than kings ruling their towns, the Ibo have a group of elders who govern the community. The Ibo venerate ancestors in a very significant, elaborate way, which has a farreaching importance in their society. The Ibo people offer sacrifices regularly, and no one eats or drinks without giving a portion to the ancestors.
The spirits of the dead are the ancestors, and the forces of nature represent their activities. The powers behind the storms, rain, rivers, seas, lakes, hills, and rocks are the spirits of the ancestors. They are not just the rocks or water but the spiritual powers capable of manifesting anywhere. There is no separation between religious activity and other activities. The relationship between the living, the dead, and the Supreme God is one of mutuality and connectedness. Humans are intertwined with the divine; there is no seam in the relationship. The spiritual world is interrelated with the natural world. Thus, according to the Shona of Zimbabwe, the Supreme God, Mwari, is connected through the ancestors and spirit mediums to the living. The natural world, the world of trees, rocks, rivers, and so forth, has a direct connection to the spiritual world by way of moral geography. When all people look at the natural world, they can identify forest, birds, mountains, rivers, hills, and insects; this is a biological or ecological system. But when practitioners of CAR view the natural world through the lens of moral geography, they see sacred mountains, sacred trees, sacred hills, and sacred rivers.

The Identification of Ancestors

To become an ancestor, death is necessary, but it is not enough. Most practitioners of CAR make a distinction between the dead and the ancestors. The Tallensi people believe that those who die without offspring live a ghostly existence because they have no one to provide reverence for them. The Fon of Dahomey say that the dead (chio) are not the same as the ancestors (tovodu). Dahomey, which is now called Benin, is the African nation with the largest proportion of its population practicing CAR, and thus it also has the most complex ritual system for deifying the dead and turning them into ancestors.
Clearly Africans' practice of ancestor veneration involves a pantheon of deities, but although such a pantheon exists in all of these congregations, it is most often a judicious and limited one. Africans do not have thousands of deities, as the Hindus do, or even scores of deities, as the ancient Greeks did; they have only the robust ancestral spirits that have been properly called into service by ritual. These spirits have been brought home again and have manifested themselves in the service of the community. Through prayers, rituals, sacrifices, and incest prohibition and other taboo injunctions, the community acknowledges the dead person as joining the cosmography of the ancestral world.
The Akan of Ghana have developed an ancestor reverence based on kinship. The matrilineal forbears can become ancestors and receive veneration. The Akan people's system is connected to their philosophy that every person is comprised of the ntoro, the sunsum, the mogya, and the abusua. The father transmits the ntoro, personality, to the child, but the ntoro does not survive death. The sunsum is the spirit of the child that exists always. The mother transmits the mogya, the blood, and the abusua, the family lineage. What survives and is transmuted to become the ancestor is the spirit, a name attached to certain ritualized relics such as a stool that represents the validation of the proper ancestral lineage. For the Akan, ancestor veneration is more than a filial relationship to the father or mother; it is a kinship event rooted in their political and philosophical system. Those members of the lineage who are heads of households or holders of office may become enshrined as venerated ancestors. What is true for the Akan matrilineal system is also true for the patrilineal system in terms of the rules of selection and veneration.

Eternal Life

As ancestors, people are able to prolong their legal existence through their heirs. Those who become ancestors may have been people with bad tempers or poor judgment, but it becomes the inescapable duty of their heirs to venerate them because the ancestors continue to live effectively in the world. Accordingly, it does not matter what a person's relationship has been with the ancestors, once these people have become ancestors, it is necessary for that person to venerate them regardless of their successes or failures as people. All ancestors have equal standing, as they have all been ritualized into ancestorhood and this carries with it the power to influence lives and intervene in activities of their descendants.
The Tallensi people believe, along with many other Africans, that if a man has no sons, he cannot become an ancestor, regardless of his virtue and success in life. Without an heir to venerate him, he is in danger of a grievous travesty. What holds for the ancestor, holds for the descendants. The eldest son must officiate regardless of his moral condition or his intellectual capacity. No one can take away from him his right to lead the veneration of the ancestors of his parents. He alone has the lifelong responsibility to carry out the functions of libation and sacrifices for the ancestor. If he fails to do so, he will be in grave peril. Should others try to take away his right to fulfill his responsibility, they will be in peril.
Similarly, all of the ancestors behave the same way toward their descendants, irrespective of the ancestors' characters in life. Ancestors who had been good people behave just like those who had been bad people. In addition, they intervene in the lives of their heirs regardless of the character of those heirs. An heir could be trifling or upright and thrifty, and yet the ancestral intervention will make no distinction based on this difference. The ancestors exact ritual service and veneration in accordance with the rules of intervention, which are the same for all heirs.

Ancestor Veneration Holds Back Chaos

None of this is a matter of good or evil; it is a matter of holding back chaos in the world. In fact, the ancestors do not punish or persecute their descendants for wickedness or reward them for goodness. However, the ancestors may harass or trouble the descendants for their failure to provide religious submission or service. The ancestors are not punishing authorities but judges who are concerned with the prosperity of the lineage. They are attuned to the needs of the people and provide corrective intervention when necessary. Thus to the practitioner of CAR, ancestor veneration or reverence is a body of religious beliefs that are aligned with rules of conduct for designated authorities in the social system of most African societies. Attending to the rites of ancestors is one way to continue to bind the people together in one community, because ancestors show the continuity of the society and compel communal action when it is necessary.
Death represents a separation, but always a separartion that is provoked or brought about by something. Death does not happen for no reason. The Swazis believe that no one dies without some sort of sorcery, that people do not die from sickness or old age and no one dies a natural death. The Lovedu believe that the life of the Rain-Queen does not end with her death because she becomes divine by taking her own life. She takes poison, which contains the brain and spinal cord of a crocodile, among other things. The queen is then buried in a deep grave standing upright and facing north from whence came her ancestors. The body is wrapped in cloth and ox skin. It is buried with beads, water, a firebrand, a mat, and, in the ancient days, a male corpse. The grave is gradually filled up and is only completely covered after 6 months, when the head has decomposed. A year later the fires are put out and then ritually relit and a new queen is installed. Like the language of death in other African ethnic groups, the Lovedu's references to death are indirect. They say “the house is broken,” “the king is busy,” “the mountain has fallen,” “the mighty tree is uprooted,” or “the queen is elsewhere.”
In the past, when an Asante king died, he was laid out and the seven openings of his body filled with gold dust. The body was put in a coffin over an open pit for 80 days so that the flesh decomposed, and then charms were fastened onto the skeleton. The Swazi specialists squeezed the fluids from the body to prevent rapid decay. The Swazi king, divine in life, was apotheosized in death and entered the ranks of the ancestors.
CAR believers accept that ancestors are ever living. This is not worship in the Christian sense. Ancestors do not replace the supreme deity. Ancestors have powers that the living do not have, and to obtain their blessings the living must avert their anger and win their favor. Since humans are in the midst of primal struggle between good and evil, they need all the assistance they can gather. Who better to provide people with assistance in this struggle than their own ancestors who have a stake in their survival? Every person is involved in the struggle for continuity, not just political heroes. There are different approaches to this among African people.
It was a common practice for the Asante army to call upon famous Asante warriors during battle. The names would be spoken, shouted, and sung as the army went into battle. The Yoruba called upon a mythical god of war. With war comes death. The general attitude of Africans toward the dead is one of respect. There are specific taboos about death in some African ethnic groups. Some groups do not even speak the word death. However, most African taboos are not about death but, rather, involve prohibitions against sexual relations with certain people and under certain circumstances. The incest taboos apply to a larger range of people in Africa than in Europe. In Africa, the taboos apply not only to members of the same family but also to members of the same clan or lineage. Taboos against marriage tend to be stronger and stricter than those against copulation. The rules of exogamy (i.e., marriage outside of a specific group), which are the direct result of these taboos, influence the social structure of African societies. The rules regulate the exchange of women and marriage compensation and maintain the society's cohesion. There has, however, been ceremonial violation of incest taboos by some of the royal families of Central Africa.
The taboos concerning death vary. The Akan people of Ghana have taboos against speaking of death at all and would never say that the king is dead. These taboos are so serious that people who violate them have to make restitution in some ritual propitiation. Although in all societies there are those who are terrified of ghosts and those who have thanatophobia (the fear of death), in Africa taboos regarding death involve a different sort of fear. The taboo and the fear concern the community, not just the individual person, and a person who breaks such a taboo actually violates the fabric of the society. It is like tearing a hole in a beautiful blanket. It must be repaired or else everyone suffers.
Respect for the dead is a given among CAR believers. The Asante have ceremonies every 3 weeks for the ancestors. The ancestors are given water to wash their hands and soul food, that is, food for their souls. The Gikuyu elders put a little food on the ground for the departed spirits. Africans do not pray to ancestors; they pray to gods, but they ask ancestors for intercession. Africans would no more pray to an ancestor than to a living parent, as prayer is reserved for the gods. A person may pour libations to the ancestors to ask the ancestors for a special favor. In addition to being asked favors, ancestors may also be scolded, “You so and so, why do you treat us like this? Why did you give us this problem? What must we do to appease you?” This scolding does not consist of insults so much as of conversation that people hold with the spirits to express their disappointment over failures.
As the African world is continuous, united, conscious of no distinction in quality between its members on earth and its ancestors, then this may look like worship. The Catholics have solved this problem by providing specialized levels of respect, consisting of latria—worship of God, dulia—reverence for the saints, and hyperduli a—special homage to Virgin Mary. Africans do not debate whether or not the ancestors are gods; they know that they are ancestors and that this involves a particular type of belief. While the Catholics have appropriated some of the ideas of the African people the religion conquered, Catholics do not see ancestors in the way that Africans see them.
Africans believe in reincarnation as strongly as do some other religions, especially Buddhism and Jainism. African reincarnation is based in the religion of ancient Egypt in which the priest says that people shall come back millions and millions of times. However, although reincarnation is a firmly held belief in most of Africa, the African conception of reincarnation differs from the Indian conception. Unlike Africans, Indians believe in rounds of existence, the cycles of rebirth from which people can escape only through nirvana, or enlightenment; in reward or punishment by rebirth into a higher or lower state (which is also found in Plato); and that the nature of the present world is suffering and illusion. The African conception of reincarnation is world affirming, not world renouncing. Souls that are reborn in children may be grandparents returned. The ancestors do not create the child, God does. The ancestral name is renewed in the family, revitalizing the people. Ancestors may be born in different children at the same time. Humans can return millions and millions of times.



  • ancestors
  • ancestor veneration
  • taboos
  • Asante
  • reincarnation
  • spirits
  • descendant


Further Reading

  • Abraham, Willie. (1962). The Mind of Africa. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. This book continues to enjoy wide readership and citation. It was one of the first to state the African's position on values and ancestors.
  • Achebe, Chinua. (1958). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann. This is the most popular novel in African history. In it, Achebe, one of Africa's principal novelists, speaks to cultural conflicts.
  • Mararike, Claude. (1999). Survival Strategies for Rural Zimbabwe. Harare: University of Zimbabwe. This is one of the best studies of African traditional and classical responses to nature, agriculture, and society. Mararike provides a detailed essay on the use of traditional values for national development.
  • Mbiti, John. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann. Mbiti's book is the standard work on African religions and philosophy, which has been criticized by some scholars but remains the classic statement on the subject.
  • Mutwa, Credo. (1969). My People. London: Anthony Blond. This is a southern African look at the nature of society, the living and the dead, human values, rituals, and myths in community.
  • Okpewho, Isidore. (1983). Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetics and Cultural Relevance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. This remains the best work on African values and myths and their relationship to the past and the future.